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Spanish judge issues arrest warrants for 3 U.S. soldiers

WASHINGTON—A Spanish judge issued international arrest warrants Wednesday for three U.S. soldiers for an incident in which a U.S. tank fired on a Baghdad hotel during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and killed two journalists.

High Court Judge Santiago Pedraz issued the warrants for Sgt. Shawn Gibson, Capt. Philip Wolford and Lt. Col. Philip deCamp, charging them with murder and violating the Geneva Conventions in the death of Spanish cameraman Jose Couso. He requested that they be extradited to Spain for interrogation.

Couso, a cameraman for the Spanish network Telecino, and Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian cameraman for Reuters, were killed April 8, 2003, after a U.S. M-1 Abrams tank from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division fired a high-explosive shell at the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign journalists were covering the battle.

Pedraz said he issued the warrants because he hasn't received U.S. authorities' cooperation in his investigation, which he opened in 2003 over the objections of Spain's attorney general, according to the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

A military investigation in August 2003 cleared the three soldiers of any wrongdoing, saying that they acted properly because they believed they were firing on enemy troops. While the Pentagon declined to comment on any legal issues surrounding the case, officials again stood by the findings, saying that the three soldiers had acted "in accordance with the rules of engagement."

"The United States has the deepest sympathies for those who were killed," said Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman. But "the investigation of the incident ... was complete and thorough. The investigation found that the tank ... properly fired on suspected enemy hunter-killer team in a proportionate and justifiably measured response."

None of the three soldiers could be located for comment, and it's highly unlikely that they would be extradited to Spain to answer the charges. Jennifer Scales, a spokeswoman for Fort Stewart, Ga., where the 3rd Infantry Division is based, said they were no longer assigned to the post.

In Spain, there are weekly demonstrations over Couso's death outside the U.S. Embassy in Madrid.

Bryan Sierra, a spokesman for the Justice Department, which handles requests for overseas extradition, said it would be "completely premature" to say how the United States would respond to the warrants. He said the Justice Department hadn't received a request for extradition.

The Spanish judge's actions are part of a broad effort by some European legal authorities to pursue what they call universal jurisdiction or universal justice. The theory holds that countries have the right to bring to justice anyone, regardless of nationality, accused of carrying out crimes of international concern—genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In June, for example, Italian authorities issued arrest warrants for 13 people they claimed were agents "linked to the CIA." They're accused of abducting an Islamic cleric in Milan in 2003 and flying him to Egypt for interrogation.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which investigated the killing of the two journalists in Baghdad, found that the attack wasn't deliberate but could have been avoided. Spokeswoman Judy Blanks said the group wanted to know why U.S. soldiers weren't aware that the Palestine Hotel was full of journalists during the invasion.

According to the organization, 56 journalists have been killed in the Iraq war, at least 13 of them by U.S. fire.

The Washington Office on Latin America, a rights group that tries to seek justice over murders and disappearances across Latin America, was uneasy with Pedraz's ruling. While not endorsing the actions of U.S. soldiers, rights expert Gaston Chiller said the killing of the journalists didn't appear to be systematic and orchestrated like the political murders of right-wing dictatorships.

"I have a concern that it (the ruling) ... undermines the concept of universal jurisdiction," Chiller said.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Kevin G. Hall contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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